Now that our game’s narrative has been defined about as much as it can on paper, it is time for us to start going into production mode on producing game content and building levels. My main role on the team is narrative, but I also help out with other tasks as they come up. This week, I was tasked with building a first-pass at the tutorial area.
In addition to teaching all of the basic mechanics that the player will need to know in order to be successful at the game, including the relationship between Io and the amp, basic movement mechanics, and how to fight against enemies, the tutorial space also sets the tone for the rest of the game. I have therefore taken it upon myself to layer in as much narrative branding into this space as possible.
In many ways, creating a level while focusing on narrative is just like adding another layer on top of creating a level while focusing on adroitly demonstrating mechanics. They both have to follow the rules of good level design, including gameplay pacing, making sure players are able to immediately recognize their goals and understand how to achieve them, guiding the player, and maintaining a high level of engagement with the level as a whole. They also both need to showcase the mechanics in interesting ways, and make the player feel satisfied when learning how to use the tools that they will have access to for the rest of the gameplay. Narrative takes everything that makes a good level, and then adds a level of atmosphere to what already exists to make the level a more compelling and emotional experience.
Let me provide a simple example, because that’s probably the best way for me to explain the atmospheric layer narrative adds to level design. In the very first room of the game, the player needs to guide Io to pick up the amplifier, and then use it to open a locked door. The process of this will teach the player basic movement abilities, will grant the player their most important tool, the amp, and will teach the player how to locally deploy the amp, and that the amp can power up old technology, granting Io access to locked away locations.
At the most cursory level, the only things that are absolutely required for this is a small room with a single, locked exit. Within that room both the amplifier, and the location where it needs to be deployed need to be prominently displayed. Before the player moves, they will have an on-screen prompting that shows them movement controls. When the player approaches the amp, another prompting will appear to show the player how to pick up the amp, and a nearly identical phenomenon will happen when the player approaches the location where they need to deploy the amp to open the door. Once they deploy the amp, the door will open.
A slightly more high level pass, one that attempts to explain the mechanics of the game through gameplay, will have components that offer the player information through interaction. A good example of this could be placed on the door. Instead of simply being locked, when the player tries to approach the door it will start to open a very small amount, before making a low-power hum and promptly sliding back closed again. This will cause the nearby lights to flicker and nearly turn off, before returning to a half-illuminated state. When the player places the amp down on the proper location, a flow of light will go from the amp to the plate, and then the lights around the door will return to a full-bright. This time, when the player approaches the door, it will open quickly and easily. When the player recalls the amp, the door will power down again, returning to a half-illuminated state, and will once more be unable to open.
This interaction demonstrates that the amplifier isn’t simply a magical key that causes locked doors to open. Instead, it explains why the player was trapped in the room (there was too little power available for the door to open), and why the amp helped the player exit (the amp provided power to the door, allowing it to open properly). This then implies that the amplifier will be able to power up more tech, and that the amp is somehow connected to energy. Solid.
Tackling this same room from a narrative perspective, however, suddenly requires the designer to not only ask, but then subsequently answer a broad level of questions. Why is Io right next to the amp at the start of the game? Well, the amp is failed technology from the past, a project that the researchers abandoned. This suddenly transforms our unmarked room from an empty space that has no purpose but allowing the player to pick up the amp, to a space with a little bit of history. It isn’t an empty room at all, but a storage closet, full of small prototypes that, while not functional, contained tech that the researchers still hoped to salvage. Now our empty room is full of clutter, broken technology, shelves of stuff, and miscellaneous bits and bobs. Careful positioning will allow us to show that the amp is a part of this clutter, while still ensuring it is easily identifiable.
But why would Io be in this room? Io is a repair robot, and its purpose is to repair any downed systems. The narrative also states that Io survived the long shut-down because it had shut down deep underground, and the earth protected it from the damage the other robots, exposed to the harsh arctic conditions, would have suffered. The basement of modern day buildings often contains essential necessities for the building’s upkeep such as boilers, air conditioners, and the plumbing system. Our storage closet has just gained another level of depth. Originally it was supposed to be a power room, but as the researchers needed more space they began to push abandoned projects to fill the space. Io, trying to maintain the research station, descended to the lower levels to try and fix the power supply, only to run out of power itself and shut down in the room.
Approaching the level design of this room with a narrative lens has transformed it from an empty, if practical space, into a space that inherently tells a story, and offers the player hints of information they would otherwise be unable to acquire. Not only that, but it adds a level of interest to the space, giving it hints of purpose and history, and therefore making it more engaging than an empty room could ever be.